Set Fire are feeling the burn after winning the Rock & Roll Rumble
Two minutes into his band’s headlining set at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston last week, Jim Healey abruptly stopped lashing monster sounds from his double-neck guitar. Playing at top volume, he’d blown an amp.
“How rock and roll is that?” asked keyboardist Jess Collins while Healey scrambled to plug into another amplifier. “We blow our [expletive] on our first song.”
Their three-piece band, Set Fire, does play big music. Viking music. Epic stormcloud music. Together for three years, in April they raided the 40th annual Rock & Roll Rumble, stomping off with the first-place prize package.
The band, which plays the Middle East on Friday, is about to release “Treya,” its third three-song EP since forming. Healey, Collins, and drummer Rob Davol are debating how best to use their Rumble earnings, which include a week’s worth of recording time at various studios around town.
The timing is right, said Collins a few hours before the show. “It feels good in here. We’re locked into a certain energy in the universe.”
At O’Brien’s, the band played one of the first songs they recorded together, the funereal “Vincent Price’s Right,” and all three of the new songs on their upcoming EP. They also covered Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” in honor of the late John Bonham’s birthday.
Dressed in black, Collins raised her arms in theatrical bat wings and threw a few well-timed kicks. Healey, a burly bear with a shaved head and a flowing red beard, sang like a medieval marauder, while Davol, shirtless and wearing a folded bandanna around his dome, hammered the beat from behind an oversize bass drum, which bore a foreboding image of a black turkey vulture.
“We didn’t plan on being ‘doomy,’ per se,” Collins said. “Jim and I have been through a lot of heavy things in our lives. This is almost an outlet — an emotional cleansing, I guess.”
Healey and Collins had been aware of each other when they were in other bands on the local hard rock scene, he in Shatner and We’re All Gonna Die and she in Mellow Bravo and the Static Dynamic, among others. They were both playing solo sets at O’Brien’s one night in the fall of 2016 when Collins asked Healey to join her on the song “Just Like Water Would.”
“And it just clicked,” Healey recalled, sipping a light beer before the band’s set. “We were zoning in on it, and I thought, ‘Why am I not in a band with her?’ ”
They’re all rock ’n’ roll lifers, with straight jobs to support the lifestyle. Healey does tech support, Davol co-owns a construction business, and Collins is a “Margarita slinger” at a Mexican restaurant in Copley Square.
By now, the trio has found a rhythm composing together, maximizing each of their strengths. Collins, who says Stevie Nicks is her “spirit animal,” is the melody queen; often she’ll record a scratch vocal — nonsense lyrics which Healey will transcribe, puzzling out the phrases he thinks she might be singing. Any individual musical ideas they have get processed through the “Set Fire filter.”
“I’ve been in other bands where I’ve written everything,” said Healey. “And you hit a ceiling with that.”
In addition to more recording, one of their next big goals will be touring overseas. “There’s a big psych-doom-stoner scene in Europe,” Collins said.
On Aug. 3, the band will help celebrate the Rumble’s 40th anniversary as part of a special lineup at the Sinclair, which will also feature this year’s runner-up, Lowell’s Corner Soul, as well as 2016 semifinalist Abbie Barrett, 2011 finalists Old Jack, and 2000 finalists Waltham, who are reuniting.
The Rumble, launched as a “battle of the bands” in 1979, claims to be the longest-running event of its kind in the country. The Neighborhoods were the first winners; others include ‘Til Tuesday, Gang Green, the Sheila Divine, and the Dresden Dolls.
Over time, the annual event became associated with “Boston Emissions,” the local radio program dedicated to Boston’s live music scene. The show aired first on WBCN, then WZLX. Anngelle Wood, who has hosted “Boston Emissions” since 2008, recently revamped it as an independent venture online. Beginning June 12, she’ll host a monthly “radio residency” on Tufts University’s WMFO.
In her decade at the helm, she said in a recent phone conversation, “I hope I’ve injected some new excitement and maintained some of the credibility that the Rumble really deserves.”
Some Rumble fans have attended the series nearly every year since the beginning, said Wood.
“I get that there is a lot going on in the Boston music landscape. I always consider the Rumble as a snapshot. It’s definitely not the only thing going on,” she said.
“But what’s great about it is that people are very confident that when they come, they’re going to see four solid bands bringing their A-plus game. The bands really step it up several levels.”
At this year’s Rumble, Set Fire mostly relied on the considerable power of their music to win over fans and judges. During the semifinals, though, they did bring a gimmick, a light-up moon that changed colors. The toy moon made its way around the crowd while they played.
Each night of the competition, they vowed to play their best set. They promised the moon, and then they delivered.
With Gozu and Murcielago. At the Middle East Upstairs, Cambridge, June 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $12, www.mideastoffers.com